The Iraq surge 2007-2008 – what does Human Security have to say about it?

by Yahia Said
The multinational forces succeeded in gaining the trust of communities by changing the focus of the mission from the prosecution of insurgents to protection of civilians. This is a significant departure from past practices

About the author

Yahia Said, visiting Research Fellow at the LSE and the World Bank economist for Iraq, has closely followed developments in Iraq since the invasion of 2003. In 2008, he co-edited Oil Wars, Pluto press, examining conflict issues in oil dependent countries.

The devastating civil war which engulfed Iraq in 2006 ended as abruptly as it started. According to US Forces Iraq Government figures the violence throughout Iraq including its most volatile areas is down to 2003 levels. This is not peace but a substantial reduction in comparison to the horrific levels reached in 2006 and 2007. Indeed at last it is possible to speak about the end of conflict in Iraq.

No honest Iraq observer can claim with certainty to know why the conflict ended. The short time period and the plurality of factors at play make it hard to isolate their relative impact. One of those factors is the US military ‘Surge’ led by General Petraeus in 2007. The surge did not only entail a substantial build up of US forces operating throughout Iraq but also a fundamental change in the way military forces are deployed. This article attempts to measure the impact of the surge on the conflict in Iraq highlighting some of the elements in the new strategy which bear some similarity to Kaldor’s Human Security approach.

The figures on violence in Iraq do not reflect the full picture and particularly the perceptions of people on the ground. While many Iraqis assert that there is still a lot of violence, particularly crime, their actions speak otherwise. This is not only demonstrated by the anecdotal evidence of revived economic activity, traffic on the streets or the trickle of returnees. International Organisation for Migration (IOM) figures, for example, show a significant decline in displacement rates starting as early as the end of 2006.

Source IOM

These figures do not only demonstrate the drop in violence but may also help to explain the causes.  A significant decline in displacement by early 2007, long before the ‘surge’ forces were in place (the deployment of additional brigades was only completed in June 2007), indicates that other factors are at play. Among the most important, is the completion of ethnic cleansing in many areas, particularly large swathes of Baghdad.

Much less susceptible to quantification is the public backlash against the excesses committed by almost all parties during 2006. The backlash is not limited to the extremist versions of Islam propagated by Al-Qaeda or some Shia clerics. It is also aimed at some of the sweeping changes which Coalition authorities and their Iraqi allies sought to push through over the preceding five years. The backlash has forced most religious leaders, politicians and warlords to distance themselves from the sectarian, fundamentalist or radical change rhetoric. Those who didn’t risk being relegated to political obscurity.

The violence of 2006 seems to have provoked a sense of defiance among Iraqis who felt dragged into a civil war against their will and better judgement. The backlash was propagated through formal and informal civil society networks which survived despite the violence and the chaos. Baghdad University, Iraqi Women's Network, websites and blogs like the mysterious Shalash Al-Iraqi who poked fun at everyone from the Sadrists to the Marines all played a role in affirming the public consensus against the extremism and chaos of post invasion Iraq.  

The events of 2006-2007 and the near collapse of the Iraqi state seem to have also shocked Iraq’s neighbours who have either condoned or actively supported many of the combatants over the past five years. US and Iraqi Government reports point to a dramatic decline in the flow of fighters and weapons from Syria and Iran since 2007.

A combination of these factors and the strategy adopted by the Multinational Forces (MNFI) under the command of General Petraeus contributed to the improvement in the security situation.

At first the improvements seemed fragile and fleeting. It could be best described as a truce - an informal complex arrangement bringing together 1) most Iraqi insurgent groups particularly those drawn from former military, security structures and Ba’athists, 2) the Sadrists and the affiliated Mahdi Army 3) Iraqi security forces particularly the National Police and affiliated Badr militia and 4) the MNFI who are also acting as broker and guarantor.

During the surge, MNFI had more substantive control over the situation in Iraq than at any other time since the beginning of the invasion. This was not achieved by dominating the battlefield, where the US troops remained just one of many actors, but by brokering a complex web of alliances and arrangements that put them at the centre.

The first element of the truce began to emerge in mid 2006 long before the surge. The Anbar Awakening Council – a coalition of Sunni Arab tribal leaders declared a campaign to expel Al-Qaeda from the province. The Awakening ‘movement’ originated in rivalries between tribes which aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda in Iraq, on one side, and those who felt threatened by the group, on the other. What started as isolated skirmishes over illicit revenues, gradually evolved into an Anti-Al-Qaeda ‘uprising’ uniting the bulk of the insurgency in the Sunni areas. The movement grew out of rising alienation and fear caused by the Al-Qaeda and the foreign ideology it represented to most Iraqis, particularly, to the relatively secular former military and security personnel forming the backbone of the insurgency.

Al-Qaeda and the regime it attempted to establish through the Islamic Emirate of Iraq gradually displaced the occupation as the most immediate threat perceived by most insurgents in Sunni areas. This was as much a result of the group's own actions as the reactions they provoked across the country. Al-Qaeda violence was seen as providing a pretext for both Shia sectarian violence and greater Iranian influence, perceived by many as an existential threat. Large-scale spectacular attacks and day-to-day identity killings, attributed to Al-Qaeda, culminating in thebombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra in February 2006, unleashed a cycle of sectarian reprisals that threatened to decimate society.

The ensuing civil war involved uneasy and, ultimately, unsustainable alliances along sectarian lines between Al-Qaeda and relatively secular and nationalist Sunni insurgents, on one side, and between the Mahdi Army of Moqtada Al-Sadr and the new state security services dominated by its arch rival the Islamic Supreme Council and its Badr Organization, on the other. 

Both the insurgents and Sadrists condoned and engaged in sectarian violence in the name of protecting their respective communities. Both risked losing their legitimacy and nationalist credentials in the process. The violence, in the final result, caused only more pain and suffering to the communities in the name of which it was allegedly perpetrated. The numbers of displaced people indicate that the suffering was roughly proportionate to all of Iraq’s communities (with the exception of Kurdistan).

Source IOM

The Multinational Forces in Iraq (MNFI) seized on the opportunity provided by the Anbar Awakening Council, not only by refraining from prosecuting armed groups engaged in the fight against Al-Qaeda, but also by providing them with cash and weapons. Coalition forces and Iraqi army units working under their command provided fire support to the armed groups against the better equipped Al-Qaeda. This amounted to an outright alliance and established a relationship of trust among the former adversaries that was to prove invaluable in other parts of Iraq.

In Baghdad and some of the surrounding countryside, Coalition forces under Petraeus’s command had to break up the complex cycle of violence into its various components in order to allow for the mobilisation of efforts by all sides against the extremists in their midst. They achieved this by brokering localised ceasefires and alliances with all but the most extremist groups, be they Al-Qaeda, ‘special groups’ or ‘death squads’. 

A combination of nuanced rhetoric and the threat of force on the part of the MNFI, for example, allowed the Sadrists to distance themselves from the so-called ‘special groups’ (bands attributed to the Sadrist Mahdi Army which have been carrying out lethal attacks on coalition forces, sectarian and vigilante atrocities) and led, ultimately, to the Mahdi Army ceasefire in August 2007 which holds to this date. Coalition officials and officers at the time went to great lengths to distinguish between the 'special groups' and the rank and file of Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

A similar approach was used with Sunni insurgents, re-christened by the MNFI as Concerned Local Citizens (CLC), Sons of Iraq (SoI)  and Neighbourhood Militias, and distinguished from the foreign led, if majority Iraqi Al-Qaeda. This is quite a significant shift, if one takes into account that the insurgents have, for most of the past five years, allied themselves with Al-Qaeda, and that they together with the Mahdi Army are responsible for the bulk of US casualties.

Coalition forces also pressured the government in Baghdad to curtail the ‘death squads’ associated with the National Police. Heavy and highly visible coalition presence in the most vulnerable areas provided added assurance to communities and militias, who purported to act on their behalf.

The multinational forces succeeded in gaining the trust of communities by changing the focus of the mission from the prosecution of insurgents to protection of civilians. This is a significant departure from past practices and is a reflection of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency philosophy.

US Troops were taken out of their fortified bases and placed literally ‘in harm’s way’, as evidenced by the spike in US casualties in the initial months of the surge. This was done with the explicit aim of providing protection and assurance to civilians. The troops were often based at Iraqi police stations and carried out police duties along with Iraqi Army units, which are relatively more trusted by the restive communities than the police. They often brought services and reconstruction relief with them to areas long ignored by the government.

Source Coalition casualties

This approach, together with the good will established through cooperation in Anbar, allowed both communities and insurgents to provide the coalition with the main weapon they need to fight Al-Qaeda and other extremists – information.

Disputed areas and administrative detainees

Acting on supplied intelligence, coalition forces could devote more care than in the past to minimising collateral damage to civilians by relying on skilled Special Operations Forces led by General McChristall to carry out pinpoint raids. 

This approach, while clearly effective, had its limitations and pitfalls. This was particularly evident in Diala and Nineweh provinces, where the Awakening model could not be replicated. Unlike Baghdad and surrounding areas, these provinces, in addition to Salahuddin and Kirkuk have the added complication of being ‘disputed territories’ – areas contested by the various communities. Since 2003 the Kurds have made inroads into these provinces, provoking a hostile reaction in other communities.

In ‘disputed areas’ it has been more difficult to mobilise insurgents to fight Al-Qaeda since they perceive the threat from Kurdish expansion as a higher priority. Moreover, the chaotic environment in these areas, pitting the various communities against each other, has produced a level of anonymity in which terrorists have thrived. Al-Qaeda historically dominated these areas even when it used the Anbar as ‘base camp.’

Other limitations of the surge approach emanated from the continued use of indiscriminate measures affecting large sections of the population. The numbers of administrative detainees soared during the surge to an estimated 40,000, in both Iraqi government and coalition custody There were 23,000 in Coalition custody as of March 2008 (Source MNFI). Estimates for those in Iraq government custody at the time ranged from 15,000-20,000 (Source Brookings Index). Many have been held for years without charge or trial. There were also numerous incidents of civilian casualties as a result of MNFI actions and those of their contractors, though relatively less than those reported in Afghanistan today. The use of high concrete barriers has turned many neighbourhoods into disjointed enclaves limiting freedom of movement and economic activity.

The mobilisation of the insurgents under the Concerned Local Citizens (CLC) banner as well as the permissive attitude towards the Mahdi Army, key ingredients of the ceasefire were not sustainable. They detracted from the already limited legitimacy of the official security forces. The use of 'neighbourhood watch' and militias amounted to a vote of no confidence in the National Police, in particular. These militias and paramilitary formations undermined state monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Ultimately the government had to turn on both those groups crippling the Mehdi Army in the Charge of the Nights Campaign (2008) and gradually dismantling the Awakening Councils.

The Surge worked in Iraq, once. It is not clear whether it can be replicated anywhere else, or even in Iraq.